Who actually cares about 101 Ash Street?
Teaching eighth graders has made me rethink how we consume important news stories
I’d wager a lot of money that the majority of 12-year-olds have never handled a physical newspaper. I know this because we just started a unit on newspapers in the 8th grade English class I’m observing to get my teaching credential.
Last week, I brought in a copy of The San Diego Union-Tribune for each student (it’s a small class, only 14 students) and they treated the papers like foreign objects. The students ripped into the issues, gleefully taking them apart like preteen cenobites. Before long, the room was covered in disembodied sections—news, local, sports, business—so I asked: “How many of you have never opened a newspaper before?”
I’d say about 10 out of 14 students raised their hands. Ten students had never handled a newspaper in their lives.
I was utterly shocked, but looking back, this might have been an overreaction. When was the last time you held a newspaper? Before this exercise, I can’t remember the last time I did (by the way, it took me an hour to find 14 copies of the Union-Tribune in the Clairemont East area. They’re very difficult to find!). I also don’t remember paying attention to the paper until that one crazy summer between middle school and high school when I got, like, really into the cryptoquote. So, yeah, it’s a little more understandable that these students haven’t read a newspaper when online news dominates and there are fewer adults modelling good news consumption.
This means I’m essentially trying to teach these students how to read the news from scratch, and as someone who once produced media for a living, it’s been eye-opening to see which news stories capture their interest and which ones don’t. At the end of each article I ask: “Why does this story matter?”
I was thinking about this recently in regards to the ongoing 101 Ash Street scandal.
Or I should say the most boring scandal to hit San Diego since pension reform.
I consider myself pretty media-savvy, as well as knowledgeable about local issues, but my brain slide-whistles down into my neck whenever I see “Ash Street” in a headline. I’ve tried a few times to dig through it, but I always emerge thinking who fucking cares?
But it’s not fair to dismiss stories like Ash Street because it is a big story. It’s a huge story, and a tasty one for that matter (if you can cut through the myopia). It’s chock full of conflict, and has just a touch of mystery. There’s government corruption, greed and wanton disregard for safety. Many people have had their careers ruined over it. I suspect the reason why I couldn’t care less about it—and remember I’m a smart-ish guy—is because of the way it’s been presented.
So, let’s pretend like we’re eighth graders. Let’s explore why the 101 Ash Street story matters.
101 Ash Street uh... 101
I’m not going to spend a ton of time on this because there are so many good recaps and timelines out there (if you’re going to look at one, maybe check out this NBC7 story, which includes an excellent interactive timeline).
Basically, the city purchased an abandoned high-rise located at 101 Ash Street in the heart of Downtown San Diego. They intended to renovate it because, you know, it sucks having a dead building in the middle of your civic center.
The decision to purchase the building was encouraged by city staff (namely San Diego Real Estate Chief and City Manager, Cybele Thompson, as well as Assistant Chief Operating Officer, Ronald Villa) who claimed that the building would only need $10,000 in repairs to make it inhabitable. Seemed like a solid deal.
However, as soon as construction crews went in to start renovations, they found the building packed with asbestos (which, as you probably know, does a lot of nasty things to your body if inhaled). The original lease even acknowledged the presence of asbestos, and the city chose to start the renovation process without informing construction workers of the hazardous material.
And then the city actually tried to fill the building with city employees—we’re talking not construction workers here—in the building at the end of 2019, only to voluntarily evacuate them a few weeks later due to the asbestos.
So now we have a big-ass, uninhabitable building that the city is still paying for with tax dollars, and it’s become a clusterfuck of political finger pointing: how much information did city officials know before signing off on the purchase? Why were there no outside consultants to inspect the property before the purchase? Did then-City Council President Todd Gloria and City Attorney Mara Elliot know about the building’s unsafe conditions before signing off?
To add a little more stank to that issue, let’s not forget the mysterious Footnote 15, which turned out to be a forged note on an official document that implied Gloria’s and Elliot’s complicity. No one still knows who authored the footnote, but NBC7 reporters Dorian Hargrove and Tom Jones were suspended for using the fabricated note in their reporting.
Simply: 101 Ash Street is a huge fuck-up that has left a lot of destroyed lives in its path.
The reasons people may not care about this story
First off, comparing one news story to another in terms of attractability is a fool’s errand. Some topics are just going to be more stimulating than others. Of course people are going to care more about Britney Spears than, say, homelessness. It can be infuriating, especially if you’re a journalist, but it’s just how things are.
But the 101 Ash Street debacle has a lot going against it. For starters, the story is about a building. A BUILDING! Even typing that out in caps doesn’t make it any more exciting. The thing can’t even photograph well.
Then there are the number of peoplewe have to keep track of to really make sense of the ongoing drama. For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to San Diego politics for the past decade, it’s basically like getting into a TV show during its tenth season. One of the most valuable things I’ve learned about getting eighth graders to actually care is by activating their background knowledge: What do they already know about the subject? What do you remember from yesterday? There are many news organizations that do a very good job of this—especially Voice of San Diego, KPBS and NBC (remember how useful that interactive timeline was?)—but print publications don’t have the space devoted to retelling a story over and over. This means it’s easy to lose the thread if you’re reading publications written primarily for print.
Finally, delivery is key. I’ve spent a lot of hours inside newsrooms, and I know from experience that reporters don’t always write for the general public. They often write for their peers, i.e. other journalists. This isn’t meant as a sleight to any of San Diego’s hard working journalists, or anyone with whom I’ve shared newsroom. But there’s a very real high that accompanies being the first person or organization to break a big story. Same goes for the thrill of seeing how our work ripples out through the community. We want our work to be acknowledged, and who better to do so than the people who understand exactly what went into it? Game sees game, and when that happens, it’s a lovely feeling.
This is all to say that it’s entirely easy for us to get hung up on breaking a story or exposing a scandal without conveying the bigger picture.
So why should we care about 101 Ash Street? Why does it matter?
At its heart, 101 Ash Street is a symptom of city incompetence and mismanagement. It’s also about the lengths the city will go to justify its actions, which include endangering the lives of construction workers. Throughout the fallout, we’ve also seen a severe lack of accountability. If you’re fatigued by stories of government corruption, then you probably will continue to not care about Ash Street stories. And I don’t blame you—there’s a lot of corruption out there.
But we live here, and we need to hold the San Diego government to a higher standard. Even if you don’t live in this city, there’s probably an Ash Street near you. Figuratively, there are Ash Streets everywhere. They all matter, and the first thing we should be asking ourselves is why.
AWKSD GUEST LIST SHOWS
The Guest List gives paying AWKSD subscribers the opportunity to see live music for free, because there’s no better phrase than “I’m on the list.”
A pair of tickets is available to the following shows—just reply to this newsletter to tell me which ones you want. First come, first served for these guys. And even if you think you’ve missed the window, it never hurts to ask.
Friday, October, 22
Levitation Room @ Soda Bar. A mix of neo-soul and ‘60s psychedelica, Los Angeles’ Levitation Room is the perfect soundtrack for these final days of summer (I know summer officially ended a long time ago, but in San Diego, summer doesn’t really end until Christmas, and then it starts up again on New Years Day).
Tuesday, October 26
Black Dice @ Soda Bar: Back in the early 2000s, bands like Liars, Yeah Yeahs Yeahs, Hella, and Deerhoof hit it big (well, big-ish) and took experimental post-punk and no wave into the mainstream. Black Dice, a contemporary of the above mentioned bands, creates music that should be seen live to fully understand. The mostly-instrumental act feels simultaneously primitive and futuristic. Fans of Battles will probably get the gist, but, really, there aren’t many bands like Black Dice.
Thursday, Oct 28
Tijuana No @ The Casbah. It’s not often that legendary Mexican ska-punk band Tijuana No play out, and I have no doubt that this show will be wild. Ska music was not the biggest thing covid took from us, but it was a big thing. I think we, as a nation, are ready to skank again.
THE WEEKLY GOODS
Get tix to this
Thrice and Touché Amoré: I have not paid a lot of attention to Thrice since their remarkable and punishing second album, The Illusion of Safety, but based on the newer material that I’ve heard, it seems like they’ve matured into something complex and dynamic. I dig it. However, the draw for me here is Touche Amore, who keep putting out hardcore masterpieces. I thought it would be impossible for them to top 2016’s Stage Four—a devastating ode to singer Jeremy Bolm’s mother, who died of cancer—but they did it with 2020’s Lament. If you’re looking for music that’ll pummel you in the face while tugging your heartstrings, look no further than Touché Amoré. This show goes down on Wednesday, October 27 at The Observatory.
Go to this
It’s a typical AWKSD move to write an entire newsletter critiquing the media and then tell people to go to a media event. But local news is invaluable, and regardless of whatever didactic garbage I spew from my Substack throne, San Diego’s journalists are top notch and do journalism better than I could only dream of (“do journalism” is what journalists do, right?). Voice of San Diego, for example, is an indelible force in this city, and their reporting has affected policies and changed the city for the better. This week, they’ve been holding their annual Politifest—a virtual symposium where experts offer insight on a variety of civic issues. This year, the focus is on “Law and Order,” and panelists will discuss certain topics like policing the homeless, crime and gang violence, and who should be the next sheriff. It’s like a boot camp for the civically engaged. Politifest goes until Friday, so get your tickets here.
Watch this (all horror picks until October 31)
After watching the Argentinian horror film Terrified for the first time, I’m pretty sure my brain was so distressed that it just erased the whole experience. I knew I had watched it, and that it scared the shit out of me, but I couldn’t remember what the film was all about. So the other night I decided to rewatch it and, yep, still traumatizing! While the plot is not great—it’s more like an anthology tied together by the concept of a haunted neighborhood—the imagery and set-pieces in Terrified are among the scariest I’ve ever seen. I wanted to embed the trailer, but even that has a horrific image of child death (trigger warning for that, obvs). But it’s getting closer to Halloween, and if I don’t recommend some truly scary stuff before the end of the month, then what good am I?
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Julia Dixon Evans edited this post. Thanks, Julia. Go follow her on Twitter.